Hurry Up and Wait: As the plane lifts off the tarmac, you regret that you won't have a chance to see that conical shaped volcano one last time: so iconic to Japan. “Maybe it's best this way,” you think, but it doesn't still the eruptions in your heart. The plane flies west towards Incheon Airport and the last you see of the archipelago is a black sliver of seismic-shaped coastline jutting out into the rough gray Sea of Japan.
The layover in the massive airport is three hours. The spicy smells of Bibimbap hangs over the food court. You watch the reenactment of a 16th century traditional Korean wedding that's nearly drowned out by the K-Pop playing over the airport sound system. Abandoning the food court, you make your way to the Yoga room upstairs on the third tier, thinking you can do some zazen before the long flight. Inside there is a young dreadlocked and man-bunned Yogi in the full lotus position. You rub the stubble on your head and remember your own dreads before the nuns shaved them off into a tangled blond pile on the dark hardwood floor of the temple. Shobuji had been strange and unique--nuns and monks, lay foreigners, and a massive wood statue of Kannon in the main temple--unusual for Soto Zen. It had been optional for a novice, the head shaving, and you had hesitated, vowing to keep your dreads. But on that first day, as the spring rains lashed the roof of the old temple, you sat in the small five-tatami conference room. The head nun sat on a small red dais. You were on the floor next to a French nun who interpreted the rules into her strange-sounding English as the head nun spoke them in Japanese. Their glances at your dreads and a final, “Bohemian, yes so bohemian.” in English from the head nun, followed by a soft chuckle buckled your resolve. “Two years as bald as Sinead O'Connor and then three years to grow them back,” you thought. You glared at a small stone Buddha just above the nun's head and set your jaw, and you heard yourself say, “Shaved pleased,” before leaving the conference room.
The dull buzz of the electric razor was not quite as cutting as the old barber's “tsk”. You cried as the nun led you to your tiny three-tatami cell in the square, white, concrete building that sat far back from the main temple.
Above the Pacific: LA is a solid nine hours away and none of the in-flight movies catch your attention. You flip through Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind again, but nothing from the book sticks. Instead, you pull out your journal, intending to add a long overdue entry, but end up re-reading several entries about your first days in Tokyo.
Journal entry 2/18/2015: Oh fuck, nearly died last night; can't believe it. Way too much Molly and no water. And so many lemon Jello shots. WTF was I thinking? I'm still jet lagged and go clubbing in Roppongi anyway? Should have crashed one more night at the youth hostel. Thank God for Sayaka. She took me to the clinic in the morning; translated and everything. It was like having a Eurasian supermodel Goddess nurse and translator for me. She found me on the floor in the women's toilet. Don't remember how I got there. I was dancing with a tall Aussie boy: this gorgeous surfer with long, dirty-blonde hair. He had the Molly. He kept touching my hair and yelling, “Love the dreads, love the dreads!” The bass was pounding through me in the tiny packed hot club. Then the lights reversed direction and sucked into me as the room spun. I told the Aussie I felt sick and left the dance floor. Three other beauties filled the vacuum as soon as I exited. The toilet smelled like piss, perfume, hair spray. So gross. Then I fell. So weird though, as I went down I saw my face four times: like the little girl when I was age six, then me as I am now, then my face as an old lady, wrinkled and thin, and then a black cloaked thing that flashed its eyes: dead-blue eyes like my father's, then blackness.
Journal entry 2/19/2015: Last night I woke up in the cab with Sayaka stroking my hand and face. She took me to her tiny apartment in the city, and let me sleep there. I slept until early morning, but the death vision came in a dream again, and I rushed to the bathroom, and threw up. Later, Sayaka took me to a medical clinic near her place. They gave me an IV for the dehydration and told me to rest, but I was afraid to sleep again.
Journal entry 2/20/2015: Still at Sayaka's. Checked out of the hostel this afternoon. Sayaka made it clear she wants me. This afternoon was my first time with a girl. It felt so mechanical—foreign, but tender--and I enjoyed it immensely. And it felt okay to cry in Sayaka's arms afterwards. Hope I can sleep tonight. Last night the same dream came again, but this time I was in my room back in LA. The cloaked thing with my father's eyes was chasing me, but my room just went on and on. I ran until I came to a pulsating dark red wall made of stinging jellyfish. The cloaked thing rammed into me, and I woke up screaming. Sayaka had already gone in the morning for a modeling thing, so she doesn't know about my nightmares yet.
Journal entry 2/21/2015: Tonight, naked on her futon, I told Sayaka about the terrible things I saw in the women's bathroom when I passed out, and the dreams; the dreams I’d been having ever since.
“That is bad. Those images, very bad. I know what to do,” Sayaka said. She told me about her aunt who freaked out after Sayaka's cousin killed herself. Her aunt went to a Buddhist temple in a place called Iga, famous for Ninjas, according to Sayaka. I asked Sayaka if she thought the temple could help me. She thinks it will. I leave for Iga in four days. Nervous. Journal entry 2/25/2015: A week in Japan and I'm on the bullet train heading to Shobuji Temple in Iga Prefecture (near Osaka, I think), where Sayaka's aunt was once a nun. She says they can fix the bad dreams. I'm not so sure, but if it helps, then I'm willing to try it. I want to sleep again. Either that or I'm going to start snorting Ambien again. Weird, weird trip so far. Los Angeles: Your half brother Terrence meets you at the airport and you ride through the city toward East Hollywood to his small apartment. On the way he tells you of his latest court case involving a major LA union and the rights of a transgender woman who requested a unisex bathroom be installed in the building she works in. You are impressed by how much of a legal champion Terrence has become for the LGBT community, but you always knew he would be that type of lawyer. Your father's violent rejection of him almost guaranteed it. At his small apartment you meet his long time partner, Alex, and hug him stiffly. Terrence is tall, tan, Greek heroic and golden in looks. Alex is the shorter of the two: the rail-thin, dark-haired, trailer-park-looking-junkie. When your mom disappeared when you were twelve, Terrence and his mother suddenly came to live with you and your father. You had actually met this secret family many times as a young child on those weekends when your father took you on “business trips” with him. But the reality of who the nice older boy you played with and the beautiful, but always angry young woman didn't make any sense until you saw them again, climbing out of a moving van in your driveway. Terrence was fifteen at the time and was gone a year later after cancer took his mom and any reason he had to stay. He lived the life of a runaway-addict-street-hustler until he got his shit together at nineteen and went back to college. Alex was the stray he'd picked up and fell in love with on the road. You'd spent much of your teen years running away to Terrence's apartment every time your father ignored your pleas to see your mother. “The woman you knew isn't in there anymore,” is all he ever said. At seventeen, the Head Start program and an art scholarship got you out of that house permanently and you hadn't been back in seven years. You are a bit surprised that a car wasn't sent for you by your father's estate trustee, his attorney. You start to mention it during dinner, but Terrence says, “Best if we discuss it after a couple of drinks.” You think of the Eightfold path, number four, Right Action, but then drink anyway after dinner. You watch Terrence and Alex hesitating, holding back something that wants to burst out of them. You breathe and wait. “You knew Wallace died of course,” Terrence starts using your father's first name. Two breaths, cool calmness; wait. “But, he umm, this is tough to say, I can't…”
“He blew his fucking brains out. Lost all his money too, the piece of shit,” Alex says, flat and straight as a freeway through the desert. Still breathing. Still level. A few images and an emotion spin by: nothing attaches. “Alex!” Terrence hisses. “I'm so sorry, Sissy,” Terrence says, his voice breaking a little. “There's a few things leftover: not much. I'll take you to his attorney's office in the morning. Do you need anything? Anything we can do?” “No, I'm just tired. If I can crash on the couch that would be great,” you say with a small smile. They are gentle with you and you are tucked into the roll-out ten minutes later, but you don't sleep. Eyes open, you stay with letting it happen. The hooded figure from that dream has been gone for over eight months, but the memory wanders in now. There's nothing there, though: a fuzzy image across a meaningless screen. Then the emotion stabs hard, and the tears and a long, opened-mouthed moan escapes. You curl into a terrible ball, bite your pillow, and shake for ten minutes. Other stabs come in, the first time his finger penetrated, the first time you closed your eyes during zazen and the Kendo sword crashed down on your shoulder, the hard let-down a month later after the heat shot up your spine and the Golden Buddha appeared smiling down upon you. “Satori,” you had thought. Yamada Sensei had actually snickered that time during your weekly meeting and said, “Bohemi-Chan, good, but just a tiny step. Ignore the fireworks and keep practicing.” You finally fall into a black sleep wondering how your emotions could have fallen headlong almost two years back in time, smothering all your assumed progress along with it.
Backwards Towards the Nothing: Terrence drops you off at a tiny suite of brown buildings near Wilshire. You meet with your father's former attorney, Mr. Jacobson. It's brief; he seems impatient and hurried. You sit in the deep black leather chair and count your breath, hating the old cigar stench clinging to the room. Stiffly delivered condolences. A laptop-sized, polished, red cedar box is slid across the desk to you, accompanied by another apology about another client, and then you are outside in the bright sun walking toward the bus stop. Avoiding the gum on the bench and the cigarette butts, you sit and lift the lid. In the box you see your father's diamond studded signet ring, the one he would spend all day sniffing after his visits to your bedroom. Under the ring is a small slip of paper with your mother's name and an address for a local mental hospital handwritten on it in red ink: your father's handwriting. There's no stab this time, no fear, just your even breathing, in and out. The pawn shops off of Sunset are open late. The ring will get you enough for a plane ticket back: a night bus to Iga, and a taxi ride to the temple.
About the Creator
Steve Howard's self-published collection of short stories Satori in the Slip Stream, Something Gaijin This Way Comes, and others were released in 2018. His poetry collection Diet of a Piss Poor Poet was released in 2019.